So often for young musicians the songwriting process is more interesting than the final product. They face a steep learning curve that forces them to forge their talent in inventive ways. While their experimentation and instincts can be inventive, their results are often not-quite-ready-for-primetime. Rare are the cases when an artist’s style coherently forms so early on. Laura Marling is one of those exceptions.
As a 17-year-old Marling recorded the impressively cogent Alas I Cannot Swim. The 2007 album was built principally around a teenager’s voice, acoustic guitar and songs about relationships — all of which sounds tortuously familiar. However, Marling’s fresh, subtle presentation and emotional confidence made the record worthy of repeated listens. Of course, the time between age 17 and 20 in any culture is a period of immense change. But the musical growth that Marling displays on her sophomore release is quite astonishing.
I Speak Because I Can is a window into one youth’s passing into adulthood. Again the themes are familiar — love, death, maturation — but they appear as dynamic characters or relationships. Marling’s most memorable often appear in the opening of her songs, setting up a clear image in the listener’s mind. “Blackberry Stone” begins, “Well I own this field and I wrote this sky/ And I have no reason to reason with you.” In “Hope In The Air” she describes a man who “for 17 years he never spoke…/ He opened his mouth on Judgment Day.” However, the situations these characters inhabit are more open-ended and could be read as romantic, familial or even spiritual. The relationships often deal with the extremes of responsibility or power struggles. On one hand she describes how “he could fall and shake and weep/ By his holy are my feet” in “Alpha Shallows.” On the other hand, “I haul up on my gentlemen/ Who have always been there in hard times/ They’re just not like that man of mine,” she finds in “Darkness Descends.”
The sound of the album also benefits from the warm production of Ethan Johns, who allows each voice and instrument to blend with each other in a natural way. Her backing band, Mumford & Sons, also contributes a wider sonic palette than the one on her debut. And her arrangements are indebted to traditional Irish and Scottish folk, in addition to 20th century Anglo folk-rock. However, Marling is distinct in that most artists with such a firm grasp of the past often make that an overt point in their presentation. Whether it be through covering standards, or in their dress or appearance, they often place the past on a pedestal. Marling side-steps this pitfall. Her music references Anglo-Celtic traditions, but she drapes it in contemporary terms (“We walk up Holland Avenue, and watch the rich as they consume”).
What makes Marling engaging is that her music presents scenarios without deliberately sounding like poetry or art. Her songs do not emphasize the beauty of sounds or musicality of words so much as clip insightful observations from conversations. “He blames me for every wrong,” she laments as the titular character in “Made By Maid,” “but I can still see a babe, under all that blame.” Some of the assertions seem specifically about the singer’s passing into womanhood: “I try to be a girl who likes to be used, I’m too good for that / there’s a mind under this hat,” she sings in “Goodbye England.” However, the declarative album can best be described as Marling’s search for meaning and place in the face of tumultuous relationships. Not bad, for an artist of any age.